Réinventer l' »annuaire téléphonique » de l’Internet? Institutions, Industries, Infrastructures

Image 2Le 19 Avril 2013, Francesca Musiani, en sa qualité de Yahoo! Fellow à l’Institut d’études diplomatiques de la School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University (Washington, DC) a organisé une conférence intitulée «Réinventer l' »annuaire téléphonique » de l’Internet? Institutions, Industries, Infrastructures ». Depuis la création de l’Internet, l’utilisation de noms de domaine, adresses, protocoles et autres infrastructures sous-jacentes au « réseau des réseaux » comme instruments de pouvoir et de gouvernance a joué un rôle crucial dans le maintien de sa stabilité, face à toutes ses évolutions. Dans l’Internet d’aujourd’hui, ces outils sont de plus en plus mis à profit par des entités politiques à des fins différents de ceux pour lesquels ils ont été initialement conçus. Cette conférence, dont on présente un compte-rendu détaillé en anglais, a abordé plusieurs thèmes chers à ADAM dans son exploration des implications politiques, sociales et techniques du « turn to infrastructure » dans la gouvernance de l’Internet. Les participants à cette conférence se sont concentrés sur un aspect particulièrement controversé de l’infrastructure Internet: le système de noms de domaine (DNS), ou l' »annuaire téléphonique » de l’Internet. Une version PDF du rapport est disponible sur le site de l’Institut d’études diplomatiques.

Reinventing the Internet’s Phone Book? Institutions, Industry and Infrastructure

A Conference Account

Francesca Musiani (2012-13 Yahoo! Fellow in Residence, ISD, Georgetown University)

With the collaboration of Chris Haley & Allison Maranuk (2012-13 Yahoo! Junior Fellows, MSFS, Georgetown University)

Note to the Reader: This account is intended as a follow-up resource for conference participants, for individuals who expressed interest but were unable to attend the conference, and more broadly for people interested in Internet governance, particularly DNS governance, issues. While we have paid a great deal of attention in being as accurate as possible, in no case portions of this text should be considered as direct quotes from the speakers’ remarks. Thank you to all the speakers and moderators for sharing their insights, and to Chris and Allison for the diligent note-taking. I take full responsibility for whatever inaccuracy is left. FM

On April 19, 2013, the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service hosted a conference entitled “Reinventing the Internet’s Phone Book? Institutions, Industry and Infrastructure”. Since the Internet’s foundation, the use of domain names, addresses, protocols, and other underlying infrastructures as instruments of power and governance has been crucial in maintaining stability throughout its evolution. In today’s Internet landscape, these tools are increasingly being leveraged by political entities for purposes other than those for which they were designed. This conference set out to explore the political, social, and technical implications of this tendency, by focusing on a particularly controversial aspect of Internet infrastructure: the Domain Name System (DNS), or the Internet’s “phone book.” Three organizations and institutions co-sponsored the event: the Yahoo! Fund on Communications Technology, International Values, and the Global Internet; American University’s School of International Service; and the Global Internet Governance Academic Network (GigaNet).


Internet governance by infrastructure: the case of the Domain Name System

Francesca Musiani, Yahoo! Fellow in Residence at the ISD for 2012-13 and the event’s host, first introduced the topic of the day’s discussion. This required, initially, to briefly touch upon the definition of Internet governance, which she described, based on the 2005 definition by the Working Group on Internet Governance, as the development and application, by relevant actors in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that shape the evolution and use of the Internet. This definition, despite its inclusiveness, has been contested by differing groups across political and ideological lines. One of the main debates concerns the authority and participation of certain actors. In particular, the role of governments is central and ambiguous, and other aspects of internet governance are controlled by transnational organizations. One should be careful about simplifying ideological extremes in discussing IG: the public is sometimes under the impression, fostered by media, that IG is entirely performed by a handful of institutions – which is not the case. All of this often leads to neglect or disregard what is, instead, a crucial aspect of Internet governance: there are a number of components of the Internet’s infrastructure and technical architecture in the design of which are embedded, to some extent, arrangements of governance. These are technologies and processes beneath the layer of content and inherently designed to keep the Internet operational: Internet Protocol addresses are an example, and there are many more, but the one the conference wishes to address is the Domain Name System, or DNS.

The DNS translates between alphanumeric domain names and their associated IP addresses necessary for routing packets of information over the Internet. For this reason, it is oftentimes called the Internet’s “phone book”. It is a wide database management system, arranged hierarchically but distributed globally, across countless servers. The Internet’s root name servers contain a master file known as the root zone file, listing the IP addresses and associated names of the official DNS servers for all top‐level domains (TLDs). The management of the DNS has always been a central task of Internet governance, and ICANN is ultimately responsible for managing the assignment of domain names (delegated through Internet registrars), and for controlling the root server system and the root zone file.

There have been a number of controversies in this area, involving institutional and international power struggles over DNS control, and issues of legitimacy, democracy, and jurisdiction. Notably, debates have addressed the historical ties between ICANN and the United States government in face of increasing internet globalization; this controversy continues to be a heated topic in Internet governance discussions. There are additional policy implications in the DNS: it was originally restricted to ASCII characters, precluding the possibility of domain names in many language scripts such as Arabic, Chinese or Russian. Internationalized domain names (IDNs) have now been introduced. Furthermore, in 2011, ICANN’s board voted to end most restrictions on the generic top-level domain names (gTLD) from the 22 currently available.Companies and organizations will now be able to choose essentially arbitrary top-level Internet domains, with implications for consumers’ relationships to brands and ways to find information on the Internet. Further DNS issues concern the relationship between domain names and freedom of expression, security, and trademark dispute resolution for domain names.

While this covers quite a lot of ground already, this conference aimed at taking one further step. In recent years, we witness a number of (more or less successful) attempts, by political and private entities, to co-opt infrastructures of internet governance for purposes other than the ones they were initially designed for. Not only is there governance of infrastructure, but governance is carried out by infrastructure… using infrastructure in “creative ways”, so to speak. As DeNardis (2011) explains: “Forces of globalization and technological change have diminished the capacity of sovereign nation states and media content producers to directly control information flows. This loss of control over content and the failure of laws and markets to regain this control have redirected political and economic battles into the realm of infrastructure.” Examples of how content mediation controversies have shifted into the realm of Internet governance infrastructure can be found, for example, in the intentional outages of basic telecommunications and Internet infrastructures, enacted by governments via private actors, whether via protocols, application blocking, or termination of access services. The government-initiated Internet outages in Egypt and Libya, in the face of revolution and uprisings, have illustrated this and may have set a dangerous precedent.

However, the domain name system is perhaps, nowadays, the best illustration of this “governance by infrastructure” tendency. Domain name seizures that use the domain name system to redirect queries away from an entire web site, rather than just the infringing content, have been considered as a suitable means of intellectual property rights enforcement. DNS-based enforcement was also at the heart of controversies and Internet boycotts over the legislative efforts to pass the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA). Governance by infrastructure enacted by private actors was also visible during the WikiLeaks saga, when Amazon and EveryDNS blocked Wikileaks’ web hosting and domain name resolution services. The conference addresses these controversies, with the aim of understanding the extent to which matters of Internet governance using infrastructure entail not only issues of economic freedom – but of Internet freedoms.


The DNS today: enforcement, security and mobilizations

The first panel, moderated by Derrick Cogburn, Associate Professor, School of International Service, American University, featured panelists Steve Crocker, CEO, Shinkuro, Inc. & Chair, ICANN Board, Matthew Schruers, CCIA & Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University, Scott McCormick, Consultant, McCormick ICT International, and Luke Pelican, Consultant, Ammori Group.

Dr. Steve Crocker, an internet pioneer and author of the first Request for Comments of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), has been involved in the development of internet since its startup in the late 60s and 70s. His opening remarks, he suggested, would probably be a counterpoint to the introductory talk and most of the day’s discussions.

It is interesting to see how attractive the idea of Internet governance has become to such diverse groups, and the range of issues it covers. It could be useful to ask again the question: what is it that has to be governed? There are three main sets of issues.

First of all, we all have a shared interest in the system. A threat to its security is bad for the public as a whole, and maintaining operation of it is important to everyone: the system has to continue to work. Contrary to popular belief, many threats are in fact not malicious, they are accidents or otherwise caused by the overloading of the system or some of its components, and its disruption via single or multiple points of failure. Secondly, some coordination of scarce resources is needed; however, the extent to which there are scarce resources on the Net is, in fact, debatable. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is responsible for maintaining unique identifiers in the domain name space. Originally there were 4 domains, and eventually, it was decided to attach human-friendly names to those numbers. In the beginning, the majority of the connections were in the US, with only a  few international connections; since the beginning, however, there was the idea of a system as distributed as possible and over time, pressures increased to expand it. Originally, there were about 4 billion IP addresses available. In the DNS’s early days, it was thought that this number would last forever – now, the IPv4 system is close to depletion. We will now see a rise of the IPv6 system, which will take some transition, and in this transition period, there may be some issues as IPv4 and IPv6 are not born interoperable. Thirdly, some governance is needed for the suppression of undesired behavior, from impolite speech to identify theft, from espionage to extortion and of course, child pornography. This is a controversial area, of course, because “one man’s freedom is another man’s pain”.

As the Internet began to grow, there was some conversation about who would be in charge of all this. First, Jon Postel single-handedly managed the system, simply updating the hosts.txt directory when needed. Of course, this quickly became too much, so ICANN was created and incorporated as a non-profit in California. It has relations with the US government due to the renewal of its contract with the Commerce Department to perform the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions. Today, Internet governance brings in a lot of people who want to use the Internet as a pawn in their own objectives, but are not acting in the internet’s best interest. What has made the Internet blossom is to make it as unrestricted as possible (in stark contrast to the telephone system), leaving innovation at the edges, and the same principle applies to the DNS. As there is no technical reason to either change the structure or to prohibit additional domain name systems from being created, ICANN’s last “big decision” has been to lift most restrictions on gTLDs and opening up an application process.

Law scholar Matthew Schruers centered his remarks on the relationship between copyright and Internet architecture. As the internet expands, the scope of government power is far more limited. Governments found it easier to regulate information intermediaries, rather than the source itself. The scope of the power of the government to regulate the Internet is more about its ability to regulate the intermediaries rather than the specific sources of information. There are four regulation forces, or tools: law, norms, architecture and markets. We are increasingly witnessing attempts to regulate architecture in order to regulate something else. SOPA and PIPA were the extension of Congress strategies to regulate intermediaries, and this included the DNS. Within these debates, and given the very different levels of technical competence on the Hill, the phone book model became really important, because it could clearly convey the idea that these laws were like removing pages from the phone book. As we will see later, SOPA and PIPA did not come into force because of widespread public outcry. These law projects would have allowed law enforcement agencies to seize domain names as if they were physical property; by removing the domain name, users would still be able to get to the website by using the IP address, but wouldn’t be able to get to it by typing in the alphanumeric address – and for most people this is a big enough obstacle.

The way in which architecture regulates is not the same way in which law regulates. Norms for a particular type of conduct are very fluid, in terms of the community and how it applies; laws enforce themselves in a leaky way (especially IP law), and they need to be enforced by a judicial system. Architectural enforcement is, in this sense, “perfect”: with laws, compliance is voluntary, we comply with them by choice; while with architecture-based enforcement, compliance is coerced, there is no choice. Finally, law is inherently nuanced, and there are exceptions to it; architecture is absolute, it allows a possibility or it doesn’t, and there is no capacity for exceptions. The US Government is an example of this: recently, it used an intermediary, Go Daddy, to seize domain names in Spain; in Spain, this was lawful but in the US it was not. Another example is the Dajaz1 website, which sometimes let out pre-releases of songs (often leaked to the website by the music promoters), so the RIAA urged the US government to seize the domain via the Utah-based Fast Domain, Inc. It turned out that the legal basis, in both of these cases, was not sound, and the sites were reinstated, but in the end, free speech was suppressed a priori for two years.

Luke Pelican introduced the SOPA/PIPA controversy and the role of civil society in successfully putting a stop to the legislation. Both bills (the acronyms stand respectively for Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT IP, itself an acronym of Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act) were aimed at combating digital piracy, and presented to the public as legislation that would help protect US jobs and industries. Critics, on the other hand, said these bills undermined Internet freedom and threatened free speech, and could actually harm the US economy, as startup companies dependent on user-created content were more likely to be sued under the legislation.

Further complicating the controversy were challenges in explaining some of the technical problems to the general public. Companies, public interest groups, and technical experts reviewed the technical provisions in the bills and raised their concerns publicly, concerns which other groups turned into meaningful action. Fight for the Future, an activist group, led a campaign against a related copyright bill in October 2011, arguing that if the bill became a law, then people like Justin Bieber could have been sent to jail instead of becoming musical successes. The “Bieber in Jail” campaign received a lot of attention from various media groups and shows like the Colbert Report. During American Censorship Day, a protest of SOPA and PIPA held on November 16, 2011, several advocacy groups framed the issue of these bills as the imposition of an American censorship system rather than about the problem of piracy. The blogging platform Tumblr auto-censored its site as part of this awareness campaign and encouraged their users to contact Congress. Overall, the American Censorship Day protests resulted in 84,000 phone calls and over a million emails to Congress, one of the biggest public outcries over an Internet-related issue. It seemed to be a forgone conclusion that these bills would pass, so, on January 18, 2012, over 115,000 websites joined in a massive web “blackout” as part of a concerted effort to stop the legislation. DNS blocking provisions were included both in SOPA and in PIPA; eventually, the sponsor of the SOPA said he would remove these provisions, after talking with technical experts. The SOPA/PIPA case is likely to have encouraged more people, including lawmakers and regulators, to learn some of the technical aspects of the Internet’s daily workings, and have a better understanding of how this facility we use daily works in practice. And this is a positive outcome that exceeds the stalling of the bill.


New actors in Internet governance: privatization, infrastructure, alternatives

The afternoon panel, moderated by Nanette Levinson, Associate Professor, School of International Service, American University, broadened the discussion to evolutions in Internet governance and actor participation in it, from the private sector’s increasingly crucial role in content regulation, and in placing restrictions on freedom of expression, to peer production collectives proposing “creative disruption” as a response to infrastructure-based enforcement. The discussion featured panelists Fiona Alexander, Associate Administrator, Office of International Affairs, National Telecommunications and Information Administration; Matthew Hindman, Associate Professor, George Washington University; Francesca Musiani, Yahoo! Fellow, ISD, and Shane Tews, Chief Policy Officer, 463 Communications.

Francesca Musiani, Yahoo! Fellow at the ISD, presented preliminary findings from her current research project. She argued that, in a discussion about new actors and changing balances in IG, it was worth including a discussion about the people who think about “second-degree” governance by infrastructure: people who, instead of addressing the DNS in its current form, look for ways to build an alternative one.

Between 2010 and 2011, the WikiLeaks case prompts a new wave of discussions about a “new competing root-server”, able to rival ICANN. An alternative domain name registry is envisaged, a decentralized, peer-to-peer (P2P) system in which volunteer users would each run a portion of the DNS on their own computer, so that any domain made temporarily inaccessible may still be accessible on the alternative registry. Instead of simply adding a number of DNS options to the ones already accepted and administrated by ICANN and its registrars, this project would try to supersede ICANN in favor of a distributed, user infrastructure-based model. There are a number of issues and open questions with this project. There are two fundamental operations that are served by the DNS: name registration and name resolution, that are usually though of jointly, but one could foresee replacing just one of them. The function that a P2P DNS project would be tackling (alternative root? .p2p top-level domain?) needs to be stabilized. P2P architecture does not allow for simultaneous optimization of all needed features, but calls for compromises. Finally, even if the alternative takes hold, a long co-existence should be expected.

There are social and political conditions of feasibility for radical alternatives such as P2P DNS. In the case that any of the decentralized DNS projects matures to the stage of relevant user appropriation, the crucial issue may become trust of users in other users: users will need to rely on other peers in the network to direct them, and it is one thing to trust OpenDNS, Google etc. but completely another thing to do the same with a random computer. And finally, it is a matter of governance: the original questions that cause P2P DNS proposals to proliferate are deeply political: they are about control, freedom, and censorship. Technical solutions to controversial issues that have a political component to them should, at some point, be accompanied by evolutions of institutions, lest the governance of the Internet be reduced to a war of surveillance and counter-surveillance technologies, of infrastructure cooptation and counter-cooptation.


The “Turn to Infrastructure” and the future of IG

In the conference’s final keynote, Laura DeNardis, Associate Professor in the School of Communication at American University, tied together the themes discussed during the day, placing particular emphasis on recently raised concerns about the future of Internet governance, and on the need to preserve interoperability. Most of these issues are discussed in her book “The Global War for Internet Governance”, forthcoming with Yale University Press. The book describes the different layers of how internet governance works; outlines the current state of global debates, and the balance of global political and economic powers related to Internet governance, civil liberties and national security, innovation policies and the preservation of the decentralized nature of the Internet.

Internet governance functions, even though technologically complex and often outside of public view, are becoming political proxies for global political struggles and conflicting values. In this context, the DNS is one important (and relatively well-working) component of a broader Internet global ecosystem. The very definition of Internet governance is contested but it is generally referred to as the design and administration of the technologies necessary to keep the Internet operational, as well as the debates around those technologies, such as critical Internet resources, standards, and protocols needed to operate the network. There is an intersection between Internet architecture and content mediation; people’s Internet access is cut off (or access restrictions are discussed) to control content sharing and communication. The evolutions in Internet connectivity, a highly private area mostly under the control of Internet companies and their agreements, raise a number of concerns in terms of stability and censorship. The conference has addressed three main themes.

First, “arrangements of technical architecture are arrangements of power” And “Infrastructure is never just infrastructure,” and is also about some understanding of complex technical systems such as the DNS; large-scale debates and mobilization, such as  the SOPA and PIPA debates; the technical complexity is often paralleled by the complexity of institutions; political structures are often embedded technological hybrids. As science and technology studies Susan Leigh Star once said, we need to invert the common sense notion of infrastructure, taking what has often been seen as ‘boring’ and behind the scenes, bringing it to the floor. Internet governance scholars such as the organizers of this conference, all involved in GigaNet, embrace this perspective in relation to Internet governance.

Second, information technology infrastructure is becoming a proxy for power control, a move that is bound to have a number of unintended consequences. Corporate media producers have lost power over the monetization of their content and are looking to infrastructure as a means of reacquiring that power; some global choke points, despite the Internet’s overall decentralization, do exist and the extent to which they are subject to “stress fractures” deserves close consideration. While these control points – some virtual, some material, most often a hybrid of both – do exist, there is often not enough public understanding of how technology works.

Third, the multi-stakeholder discussion often reveals its limits, mostly in contexts of privatization of internet governance. Much Internet governance is being done through new forms, not governments; examples are regional internet registries and private telecom companies managing the Internet’s backbone. Privatized areas are enacting policies and we are often moving from governments to private sector as Internet governance’s crucial actor. From “delegated censorship” to “delegated law enforcement”, the spotlight is on private entities.

These three themes raise the question of what are the challenges to the future of Internet governance, and therefore, to Internet freedom. First, there needs to be a focus on issues of interoperability, which is easy to take for granted.  In many ways, we have more connectivity than ever. But there is not interoperability between social media platforms, Internet voice software, or cloud computing services in the same way there is in email or web services. For example, Skype, while an excellent application, is based in part on proprietary approaches. There is a shift from an open, unified web in which the publication of open standards has helped foster innovation and compatibility among products to an environment that de-prioritizes interoperability and places constraints on interconnection. Constraints on interoperability are constraints on innovation itself.

The DNS is a foundational technical system necessary for the Internet’s operation, handling billions of queries per day, and it is increasingly used for content blocking functions for which it was not designed. If DNS query resolution is not universally consistent, this may have serious implications for the universality and stability of the global Internet.

To conclude, the Internet is governed while being in a state of constant flux, and a very complex system; its governance entails issues of both private control and civil liberties; it requires technical design as well as new institutional reforms; this governance is not fixed, anymore than technical architecture is fixed. The consequences of changes to this system should be carefully examined as we move forward.



Francesca Musiani

Chercheuse postdoctorale, MINES ParisTech Yahoo! Fellow in Residence, Georgetown University

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Les nouveaux gTLDs: le défi de l’Europe

Cet article, en anglais, a également paru sur l’Internet Policy Review le 6 juin 2013. Merci à Frédéric Dubois, Uta Meier-Hahn et deux relecteurs pour leurs commentaires et retours.

New global top-level domain names: Europe, the challenger

06 Jun 2013 by Francesca Musiani

“There are roughly two dozens now, but soon, there could be hundreds[1],” writes the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organisation responsible for managing and coordinating the system of unique identifiers and names on the internet – on its webpage dedicated to the creation and forthcoming implementation of the new generic top-level domain names (gTLDs).

gTLDs are the highest level of domain names in the domain name system (DNS), including .com, .net and .org; their number has been restricted to twenty-two for several years, and ICANN has implemented several restrictions on the ways in which they are operated. Thanks to the new gTLDs programme, businesses and organisations are now able to apply for their own customised top-level domain names, thereby greatly expanding their current number. ICANN’s move is the most recent controversial one in a subfield of internet governance, the management of the Domain Name System (DNS) of the “network of networks”, which is already rife with political and economic controversies. What are the implications of this “turn” to new gTLDs? This article attempts to outline them, and, it addresses the impact of the new gTLDs programme on Europe’s action-taking in the internet governance realm. The article also considers the likely impact of the new programme on ICANN’s governance and weight vis-à-vis other important internet governance actors.

The Domain Name System and ICANN: an internet governance “hot potato”

The Domain Name System of the internet establishes the domain name space in the same way that the Internet Protocol establishes the Internet address space[2]. The DNS translates between alphanumeric domain names and their associated internet protocol (IP) addresses necessary for routing packets of information over the internet. For this reason, it is oftentimes called the internet’s “phone book”.

The DNS, through this address resolution process, handles billions of queries per day. In a very simplified way, the DNS can be described as a wide database management system, arranged hierarchically but distributed globally, across countless servers. The internet’s root name servers contain a master file, the root zone file, listing the IP addresses and associated names of the official DNS servers for all top‐level domains. The management of the DNS has always been a central task of internet governance, and ICANN is ultimately responsible for managing the assignment of domain names (delegated through internet registrars), and for controlling the root server system and the root zone file.

There have been a number of controversies in this area, that continue to this day, involving institutional and international power struggles over DNS control, and issues of legitimacy, democracy, and jurisdiction. Notably, debates have addressed the extent to which the privileged historical ties between ICANN and the United States government continue to exist, despite the  increasing internationalisation of the internet, which may call for a more prominent role of other countries in ICANN governance; this controversy continues to be a heated topic in internet governance discussions. There are additional policy implications in the DNS: it was originally restricted to ASCII characters, precluding the possibility of domain names in many language scripts such as Arabic, Chinese or Russian. Internationalised domain names (IDNs) have been introduced in May 2010. Further DNS issues concern the relationship between domain names and freedom of expression, security, and trademark dispute resolution for domain names.

The DNS is perhaps, nowadays, the best illustration of governments’ and companies’ tendency to govern or manage the internet by co-opting infrastructures of internet governance for purposes other than the ones they were initially designed for[3]. Domain name seizures that use the DNS to redirect queries away from an entire web site, rather than just the infringing content, have been considered as a suitable means of intellectual property rights enforcement – to be carried out by internet registries, internet registrars, or even DNS operators such as internet service providers. DNS-based enforcement was at the heart of controversies and internet boycotts over the legislative efforts to pass the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) (Ammori, 2011). Governance by infrastructure enacted through the DNS by private actors was also visible during the WikiLeaks saga, when Amazon and EveryDNS blocked Wikileaks’ web hosting and domain name resolution services[4].

Generic top-level domain names

Top-level domains are the highest level of domains in the DNS,  installed in the root zone of the name space; generic TLDs, a category of these highest-level domains[5], are familiar to the public as widely used internet addresses’ suffixes such as .com, .net, and .org. They can be either unsponsored – domains that operate under policies established by ICANN “on behalf” of the global internet community – or sponsored, proposed and funded by private agencies or organisations that establish and enforce the rules restricting the use of the domain. The number of gTLDs has been slightly increasing since ICANN’s inception, but has stabilised at twenty-two for several years.

Over the years, the demand for more gTLDs has been constant, just as has ICANN’s consideration of many proposals, by different actors, for practical ways to go about their implementation. These proposals range from adoption of policies for unrestricted gTLDs to chartered gTLDs for specialised uses by dedicated organisations. ICANN’s new gTLD programme, approved in June 2011 under the banner of “promot[ing] competition in the domain name market while ensuring internet security and stability[6]”, ends most restrictions on gTLDs and allows businesses and other organisations to apply for their own customised top-level domain names. This constitutes the first significant expansion of the system in existence today, and has the potential of carrying important implications for the future of the DNS, if not in the way the internet operates, in terms of potential changes in “the way people find information on the internet or how businesses plan and structure their online presence[7] ».

The unveiling of the new gTLDs programme

Roughly a year after its announcement of the programme, ICANN held a press conference in London to mark the “Reveal Day[8],” during which its Senior Vice President Kurt Pritz noted that over 500 companies and organisations had applied for nearly 2,000 TLDs. The announcement was not exempt from controversy, for a number of reasons. United States-based organisations and companies accounted for more than half of the applications, with the domain name registry Donuts applying for more than three times the number of gTLDs as the next largest applicant[9]. This US focus is possibly attributable to an issue of cost: ICANN set the fee for each TLD application at $185,000, while noting that financial assistance to organisations that wanted to register for TLDs but could not meet the applications fees was provided, and the geographical spread was, in fact, wider than it expected – ICANN’s CEO, Rod Beckstrom, was quoted as saying that “To have 17 applications from Africa is actually encouraging, it’s a significant expansion[10]”.

While emphasising the positive side of the programme’s goals (“enhancing competition and consumer choice, and enabling the benefits of innovation[11]”, in addition to increased control, innovative business models, and even community engagement and geographic celebration[12]), ICANN had been adamant about the responsibilities that applying for a new gTLD would entail. These include the preservation of some financial stability over a minimum of three years, compliance with all the obligations of the registry agreement with ICANN (with enhanced restrictions when running a community-based TLD), and employment of highly skilled technical operators. Thus, ICANN compared these responsibilities to those of Verisign[13], the American company currently operating two of the internet’s thirteen root name servers: “When you apply for a new gTLD you are applying to run a registry business. You will be responsible for a critical and highly visible piece of internet infrastructure. Just as Verisign is responsible for all the domain names registered in the .com top-level domain, so you would be responsible for all the domain names registered in your .something gTLD[14].” Additional risks were identified in unforeseen competition from unexpected sectors, and the “uncharted territory” that the new sector, with its lack of already-tested and proven business models, could entail for its pioneers.[15]

New gTLDs are just around the corner?

The first implementation within the new gTLDs programme – i.e., the actual insertion of a new TLD into the internet root to render them operational – may be happening within a few months. July 1st, 2013, has been proposed as the earliest possible date and a pilot program is currently underway. This is earlier than what had previously been anticipated, and for applicants as well as some users, it has been welcomed news; however, all dates remain tentative. In particular, ICANN has underlined – at the very moment in which a March briefing by the organisation was announcing the schedule of the first release – that priority will be given to its core mission of preserving the technical stability of the internet’s naming and addressing system, which seems to imply that the first implementation will be delayed if its broad impact cannot be thoroughly assessed or raises concerns. IT consultant and former ICANN member, Stephane Van Gelder, noted that “Security and Stability Reviews are ongoing as the program ramps up towards launch, with constant monitoring of the potential technical impact of new gTLDs going live. This will only happen once ICANN is satisfied that doing so carries no technical risk to the Internet[16]. »

Earlier this year, ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee – the body that provides advice and input from governments to ICANN on issues of public policy, especially where there may be an interaction between ICANN’s activities and national laws, or international agreements – gave the ICANN Board its thoughts on the first batch of applications. While two applications received outright objections[17], governmental advice came for the most part in the form of “safeguards”. The Governmental Advisory Committee noted that specific categories of TLDs require additional protections or restrictions to be implemented; for example, it asked for the singular and plural versions of the same basic string not to be considered separately (e.g., .game and .games). It also requested that the signing of any new gTLD contract be dependent upon the completion of the new registrar contract currently being finalised[18].

European perplexities on content and procedures

The European Commission (EC) is not elated by the ways in which the program is being carried out, and has expressed perplexities on both the content of some applications and the procedures with which ICANN has handled government objections to new gTLDs[19]. On November 29, 2012, the EC, in the person of Linda Corugedo Steneberg, Director at the Communications Networks, Content and Technology Directorate, issued a letter to ICANN[20] with a list of 58 applications deemed problematic, including .sex, .sexy, .free, .green, .eco, .health, .doctor, .baby, .sale and .security[21].

However, the letter also pointed out that the EC’s initiative should not be considered as an Early Warning, i.e., a notice from ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee members that an application is seen as potentially sensitive or problematic by one or more governments[22]; instead, the listing of a new gTLD was to be considered as a signal that further discussions between the EC and the relevant applicant were necessary. The letter has also been interpreted as an implicit critique of ICANN’s procedures, pointing out that even if the Governmental Advisory Committee does not officially advise against these applications, the EC may decide to take other action against them: “the fact that the letter […] explicitly states that the warnings are definitely not official Early Warnings […] sends a worrying signal that the EC is not in the mood to play by ICANN’s rules[23].” In addition, the EC expressed its disappointment about the limited number of applications coming from developing countries, making explicit that “this is clearly an area where ICANN needs to re-focus its efforts[24].”

In the larger context of the relationship between sovereign governments and ICANN, the European Commission’s action is considered quite significant, because by explicitly opting out of the Early Warning process and naming its own list of potentially problematic gTLD applications, the EC is bypassing the Governmental Advisory Committee as ICANN’s prescribed process for governments and intergovernmental bodies to provide input on domain name policy matters. FairWinds Partners, a digital strategy consulting firm, interestingly concludes in this regard that “the European Commission brought new gTLD applications into the legal realm of legislation and policy, quietly implying that ICANN has no jurisdiction in such matters. The European Commission has sent the message that it is not within ICANN’s purview to oversee issues that impact a nation’s (or in this case, a union of nations) economy, culture, freedoms of speech and expression, or industry regulations – this power rests with the sovereign governments of those nations[25].” FairWinds further states that, in addition to echoing past criticisms of ICANN processes, the EC’s action “raises issues of adjudication: if other governments follow the European Commission’s lead or even take a step further by deeming whether or not a new gTLD is allowed to exist independently of ICANN’s assessment, who holds the ultimate authority to determine the fate of the gTLD, ICANN or the government?[26]” The letter of the EC could set a critical precedent.

ICANN weighing even more in the internet governance arena?

In a number of ways, the new gTLD programme makes ICANN even more central an actor in internet governance. By framing the programme as a promoter of competition in the domain name market, while at the same time seeking to maintain internet security and stability, ICANN’s activities and policies also have the potential, as the organisation itself underlines, to influence the way internet users find information online, or the ways in which companies arrange and display their online presence.

As a consequence, ICANN is now, more than ever, under scrutiny of international actors, of which the European Commission is a notable example. Despite claims by ICANN that “this is a not-for-profit initiative [and if] the fee collection exceeds ICANN’s expenses, the community will be consulted as to how that excess should be used[27],” there are concerns that “what can’t be overlooked today is the fact that [the new gTLDs’] unveiling will be most beneficial for big business. Companies that don’t find themselves on or anywhere near the Fortune 500 list probably don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars set aside for a rainy day, especially if that day approaches but the forecast is mixed[28]”. The fee set by ICANN may discourage most smaller businesses for applying, while it will not be a major issue for bigger players.

Moreover, the argument is made that the actual implementation of the new gTLDs, that ICANN is pushing for July, may be premature, causing problems for the very internet security and DNS stability that ICANN is claiming to preserve. The concern comes from one of ICANN’s long-time supporters, Verisign. The company notes in a recent report[29] the little consideration ICANN has given to registry operators that will need to prepare for the changes, including dealing with security implications that may affect the working of the whole internet[30]. Verisign appears to be implying that ICANN may be using the (excessively?) speedy implementation of the new gTLDs programme to reinforce its own powerful position in the internet governance landscape – and, to pursue this primarily political objective, may maintain this “neck-breaking” schedule to the detriment of internet stability, if necessary. Will the implementation of the new gTLDs reassure those who, as Verisign, feel that the programme displays an increasingly “ICANN-centric role[31]” in the governance of a critical area of internet infrastructure? Only the close future will tell, but one thing is certain: the new gTLD programme has important implications for both the stability and security of the internet’s infrastructure, and the ways in which users experience the internet daily – from online search habits to e-commerce. As such, it should be implemented gradually and cautiously; ICANN has fifteen years of experience on which it can build to ensure that this is the case.


[1] http://newgtlds.icann.org/en/about/program

[2] Laura DeNardis, “The Emerging Field of Internet Governance”, in William Dutton (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013 [pre-print version available here http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1678343].

[3] The author has organised a recent conference on the topic at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, http://internetphonebook.eventbrite.com/

[4] Cfr. my recent article on the Internet Policy Review, http://policyreview.info/articles/analysis/dangerous-liaisons-governments-companies-and-internet-governance

[5] Another one, perhaps the most popular among internet users, is ccTLD or “country code top-level domain”, including .us, .de and .fr.

[6] http://newgtlds.icann.org/en/applicants/customer-service/faqs/faqs-en

[7] Id.

[8] http://www.icann.org/en/news/press/kits/reveal-day-13jun12-en.htm

[9] Natasha Lomas (April 9, 2013). Donuts, A Register for New gTLDs, Raises Tens of Billions in Series B So It can Bid for More .Names. TechCrunch, http://techcrunch.com/2013/04/09/donuts-series-b/

[10] Ingrid Lunden (June 13, 2012). Icann Applicants For New TLDs Revealed As Part Of ‘Reveal Day’: The Full List. TechCrunch, http://techcrunch.com/2012/06/13/icann-applicants-for-new-tlds-revealed-the-full-list/

[11] http://newgtlds.icann.org/en/about/program

[12] http://newgtlds.icann.org/en/about/benefits-risks

[13] http://www.verisigninc.com/

[14] http://newgtlds.icann.org/en/about/benefits-risks

[15] Id.

[16] Stéphane Van Gelder (27 March 2013). First new gTLDs could be seen as early as July. NetNames, http://www.netnames.com/blog/2013/03/first-new-gtlds-could-be-seen-as-early-as-july/

[17] The two are .gcc (contested by some of the Gulf countries, claiming similarity between this string and the Gulf Cooperation Council) and .africa, submitted by DotConnectAfrica (for lack of official support by governments from the region, given to another identical application)

[18] ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (11 April 2013). GAC Communique – Beijing, People’s Republic of China. https://gacweb.icann.org/download/attachments/27132037/Beijing%20Communique%20april2013_Final.pdf

[19] Kevin Murphy (November 27, 2012). Europe rejects ICANN’s authority as it warns of problems with 58 new gTLDs. Domain Incite, http://domainincite.com/11130-europe-rejects-icanns-authority-as-it-warns-of-problems-with-58-new-gtlds

[20] European Commission (November 29, 2012). Interim position of the European Commission concerning the applications for New gTLDs. http://www.icann.org/en/news/correspondence/steneberg-to-icann-board-27nov12-en

[21] Murphy, ibid.

[22] http://newgtlds.icann.org/en/applicants/gac-early-warning

[23] Murphy, ibid.

[24] European Commission, ibid. and David Goldstein (December 4, 2012) Europe Lists gTLD Applications of Concern Plus Disappointment in Developing Countries Applications (http://www.domainpulse.com/2012/12/04/eu-gtld-applications-concern/)

[25] FairWinds Partners (December 3, 2012). As the GAC’s World Turns. gTLD Strategy, http://www.gtldstrategy.com/policy-updates/as-the-gac%E2%80%99s-world-turns

[26] Id.

[27] http://newgtlds.icann.org/en/applicants/customer-service/faqs/faqs-en

[28] Jonah Berger (29 June 2011). ICANN Approves New gTLDs: SEO Implications. http://blog.performics.com/icann-approves-new-gtlds-seo-implications/

[29] United States Security and Exchange Commission (March 28, 2013). Form 8-K Current Report, Verisign, Inc. https://investor.verisign.com/secfiling.cfm?filingID=1014473-13-12&CIK=1014473

[30] Id. and Loek Essers & Grant Gross (April 2, 2013). Groups say ICANN unprepared for gTLD launch. InfoWorld, http://www.infoworld.com/t/internet/groups-say-icann-unprepared-gtld-launch-215675

[31] Id.

Francesca Musiani

Chercheuse postdoctorale, MINES ParisTech Yahoo! Fellow in Residence, Georgetown University

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